Publication: The Times
Currently Director of the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, the sculptor Tony Cragg was born in Liverpool in 1949 but has been based in Wuppertal, Germany since 1978. Although Cragg describes himself as a “radical materialist” the term does not refer to consumerism but rather to his approach to materials, the stuff and substance of which our world is made – including, as Cragg observes ‘the neurons which comprise the human brain’. The etymology of the term ‘radical’ embraces the idea of a root cause; and so Cragg’s approach is motivated by the desire to test, explore and experiment with all manner of substance and object.
Such an approach is immediately evident on a first encounter with Cragg’s work. The shapes, forms, colours of his sculpture and wide range of materials from which they are fashioned (including plastic, fibreglass, plywood, marble and bronze) make a startling impact. Although his work is diverse in scale, substance and approach it is also clear that this wonderfully adventurous sculptor works thematically, in series, and that these run in parallel, like trains of thought where one idea somehow links to another.
Indeed, some of these twisting, laboriously honed forms seem to be metaphors of their own creation. A work such as ‘Early Forms St Gallen’ (1999) – an enormous twist of cast bronze nearly three metres long – can be viewed spatially and temporally. ‘Reading’ the work from one end to the other, one sees the clear form of a bowl or mortar at one end which then morphs into geometrically-defined variations of itself. It gives the appearance of having been manufactured using state-of-the-art computer-modelling. In fact, every aspect bears the touch of the human hand, from the original model through to the creation of a mould, and then to the final casting and finishing.
Such works are completed using fabrication methods and numerous assistants and technicians in Cragg’s workshop – a vast, former tank maintenance depot in Wuppertal. The premises bear witness to the enormous scale of much of Cragg’s work (some of it so bulky and heavy that it cannot be shown inside the SNGMA) as well as to the size and ambition of Cragg’s grand projet.
Such large-scale engineering processes are complemented by Cragg’s complex, energetic drawings which, despite initial appearances, are based on an observable external world and are neither conceptual nor imagined. In one series of photographic prints, which show the pouring of molten iron in a foundry, the materiality and physicality of Cragg’s work is strongly emphasised –
laying down a heavy, solid challenge to some of the flimsiness of current fashionable ‘conceptualism’.
This major show, the first of Cragg’s in the UK for over ten years, is a triumph and a must-see for those keen to see how the boundaries of modern sculpture can be pushed ever outwards.